January 28, 2021

Safe medication disposal

With most of us spending more time at home over the last several months, some of us may have finally tackled cleaning out the household medicine cabinet. In fact, this was indeed the case for my aunt who video conferenced me to show me her pile of unwanted and expired medications. Some ways we go about our ordinary daily lives can have drastic impacts on the natural environment and I want to increase awareness about safe medication disposal.

Flushing the unwanted medication down the toilet or the drain may be the first thought for some to dispose of the medication. However, by disposing of unwanted medicines in this manner can negatively impact our natural environment. Chemicals from these unwanted medications can end up in places like our streams, lakes, rivers, as well as drinking water sources. As many wastewater treatment plants were not specifically designed to remove or neutralize such chemicals, many of these chemicals pass through the plant and end up in our waterbodies. Even if your home has a septic system, these chemicals, when flushed down the toilet, can leach into the ground and find their way into groundwater. Therefore, we should not flush unwanted medications down the toilet or drain.

Several research studies have observed the negative environmental impacts linked to chemicals found in medications. Some of these chemicals are endocrine disruptors, which can interfere with the body’s hormonal system. Exposure to such chemicals has been linked to reproductive and developmental problems in aquatic organisms. The feminization of male fish has been observed when exposed to estrogen compounds. Other studies have shown that antibiotics in wastewater may promote antibiotic-resistant bacteria and genes in aquatic environments. Additionally, through plant uptake of contaminated irrigation water, chemicals from medications also have been found in food crops.

In order to protect the health of our natural environment, the most preferred method to properly dispose of unwanted medicine is to take it to a local medicine take-back collection site. Oftentimes, these may be located at a law enforcement agency, retail pharmacy, or hospital clinic. When taking medicines to collection sites, ensure to leave medicines in their original containers. Remove any personal identifying information on the label, but make sure to leave the name of the medication and the dosage on the container. Typically, collection sites will accept over-the-counter, prescription, as well as pet medications. Additionally, vitamins and medicated lotions, creams, and ointments are often accepted. Of course, it is always a best practice to check with your local collection site to confirm the medications they will accept.

If your area does not have a medicine take-back collection site, consider asking your local pharmacist if medicine mail-back envelopes are available to submit unwanted medications for proper disposal. As a last resort, you can throw the entire medicine container into the garbage can by following a few important steps. Ensure to keep the medicine in the original container, remove personal identifying information, but leave the name and dosage of the medication visible as well as any safety information that may be present on the label. Discourage anyone from attempting to take the medicine by modifying the contents of the container with a safe and unpalatable substance. If you have a liquid medication, consider adding flour or salt. For pills, consider mixing them with kitty litter or used coffee grounds. Then, completely seal the medicine container and conceal it inside of a piece of non-transparent trash, like a leak-proof container. Then, dispose of it in your garbage can as close to trash pick-up day as possible.

Ashley Belle is a University of Illinois Extension environmental & energy stewardship educator.